Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

10: Revolutions of the 20th Century

‘One of the world’s most important and terrible events’, was how a Radio Three announcer introduced an evening of programmes to mark the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The centre-piece was a commentary by historian Orlando Figes, whose popular history of the revolution, A People’s Tragedy (London 1997), ascribes the events of October 1917 to Lenin’s ‘bloodlust’. To Figes, October 1917 and the horrors of Stalinism were one and the same thing.

This is a mantra opponents of revolution love to repeat: revolutions always lead to disaster, they say, and the only way to protect civilisation is to support the power of millionaires and multinationals or aristocrats and kings. To sustain this argument, they have to ignore the most elementary fact – that the basis of Stalin’s power from 1929 until his death in 1953 was utterly different to that established in October 1917.

The revolutionary government of 1917 was based on elected delegates to a workers’ council. It had the support of 67 per cent of the delegates elected in October 1917 and 74 per cent of those chosen in elections three months later. Such elections took place against a background of unfettered debate between newspapers and periodicals supporting different parties. Within the Bolshevik party, overwhelmingly made up of workers, there was free and open debate for at least the next four years.

The first years of the revolution were characterised by social transformation – the establishment of workers’ control over the managers in the factories, the division of landlords’ property among the peasants, the granting of self-determination to oppressed nationalities. A mass of social reforms, far in advance of those in any capitalist country at the time, gave women the vote in soviet elections, legalised divorce, established crèches, removed laws against homosexuality, ended discrimination against Jews and opened education to all.

By contrast, there were no workers’ councils under Stalin. The supreme soviet of his 1936 constitution was a fake parliamentary structure, for which elections were not free. There was only one party, and all newspapers and periodicals slavishly followed its line. The majority of the party members were not workers, but managers, state bureaucrats and full-time party officials. No party member, high or low, was allowed to present any policy different to Stalin’s. Anyone who tried was imprisoned and usually executed.

Stalin’s party continued to call itself the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). But it had nothing in common with the party of 1917. Only 1.3 per cent of the 1.5 million members in 1939 had been members in 1917 and only one in 10 of the 200,000 surviving Bolshevik party members of 1918 were still in Stalin’s party by then. Of the 15 members of the first revolutionary government, 10 were executed or murdered on Stalin’s orders, four died naturally and only one – Stalin – survived. Hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries were killed by the secret police or died in labour camps. As Leon Trotsky put it before Stalin had him assassinated, there was ‘a river of blood’ between Bolshevism and Stalinism.

Some people argue that because Stalinism arose in Russia after the revolution and involved some of those who played a part in the revolution, there must be a connection. But one event following another does not prove causation. A factory might make an object out of iron. If it is left in the rain and rusts until it is useless no-one in their right mind would argue the factory caused the rust. Similarly, one cannot simply say that a revolution is responsible for something that happens several years later. You have to look at the impact of other factors.

How the Revolution Was Strangled

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued that a socialist society could only be built once advanced capitalism was established. Classes emerged in the past, they said, because natural scarcity prevented the putting aside of wealth to advance civilisation or improve production without one section of society exploiting the rest. Capitalist accumulation gave rise to such massive means of production it overcame that scarcity, but its class interests and structure prevented society moving forward. However, capitalism also made possible a revolution by the ‘overwhelming majority in the interest of the overwhelming majority’.

Russia in 1917 was far from being an advanced capitalism. There were pockets of advanced industry in Petersburg, Moscow and a few other places, and it was the workers there who made the revolution. But four fifths of the population lived on the land, cultivating it under virtually medieval conditions, with minimal levels of literacy or knowledge of the world at large. For this reason, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders argued until 1917 against any notion that a revolution in Russia could be a socialist revolution. They changed their minds because they saw what was happening as part of a revolutionary wave that could spread right across Europe – a process Leon Trotsky, who had come to this idea considerably earlier, called ‘permanent revolution’. The advanced industry of Western Europe – especially of Germany – would provide the means to overcome the backwardness of Russia. If this did not happen, ‘we will perish’, said Lenin.

It was not a crazy perspective. Not only Russia, but the other great empires that dominated most of Europe, Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, collapsed after 1917. At the end of 1918 there were workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Vienna and Berlin as well as Moscow and Leningrad. A workers’ government controlled Hungary for several months. Italy went through ‘two red years’ culminating in 1920 in the occupation of almost all the country’s factories. A revolutionary movement erupted in Spain. In Britain, prime minister Lloyd George told trade union leaders they had the power to make a revolution if they wished.

Yet the attempt to spread revolution failed. Workers in the west were not immune to revolutionary ideas, but the leaders of the social democratic and Labour parties worked with the capitalists and the military to maintain the old order. ‘I hate revolution like the plague,’ said the German Social Democratic leader Ebert who became president in 1919. ‘Someone has to be the bloodhound,’ said his colleague Noske as he directed a mercenary army made up of officers from the old empire to crush strikes and uprisings.

The revolutionary regime in Russia was left devastated by three years of world war and was then invaded by ‘White’ armies run by the old ruling class. ‘The greater the terror, the greater our victories,’ declared the counter-revolutionary general, Kornilov, ‘We must save Russia, even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of three fourths of all Russians’. ‘Anti-Semitic venom fairly dripped from the public pronouncements of Denikin’s generals’ a historian unsympathetic to the Bolsheviks records of the White armies: ‘As the pogroms of 1919 burst upon the Jews of the Ukraine with incredible ferocity, the enemies of Bolshevism committed some of the most brutal acts of persecution in the modern history of the Western world.’ Under the jurisdiction of General Kolchak ‘innocent men and women dangled by the scores from telegraph poles ... and his men machine-gunned freight trains full of victims at execution fields along the railway’. [1]

The devastation caused by the White armies was multiplied many times over by the intervention of all the major capitalist powers. Fourteen countries sent forces to try to crush the revolution, which seemed doomed to defeat in August 1919 as the White armies, backed by 200,000 western troops, advanced into the heart of Russia from three sides.

The revolutionary power survived, but at a terrible price. There were appalling food shortages and widespread cholera with reports of cannibalism in some parts of the country. Virtually all the factories shut down as raw materials ran out, until production was about one eighth of the pre-war figure. Half the workforce left the cities to find food in the countryside. The remaining half survived on meagre rations of bread obtained by armed detachments in the countryside. The working class that had made the revolution disintegrated, scattered across Russia. The revolutionary democracy that rested on this class inevitably suffered also. The militants were left in power with no mass base to debate the rights and wrongs of what they were doing. But they knew that to abandon power would only bring the horror of the counter-revolution.

Victor Serge, an anarchist from Western Europe who went to Russia after the revolution, described the changes in the revolutionary power produced by foreign intervention and civil war. Up to June 1918, he wrote in his The Year One of the Russian Revolution (London 1992):

The republic has a whole system of internal democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not yet the dictatorship of a central committee or of certain individuals. Its mechanism is complex. Each soviet, each revolutionary committee, each committee of the Bolshevik Party or the Left Social Revolutionary Party holds a portion of it and operates it after its own fashion. All the decrees are debated during sessions [of the all-Russian Soviet executives] which are often of tremendous interest ... Here the enemies of the regime enjoy free speech with more than parliamentary latitude ...

But the pressure on the core area held by the revolution became almost overwhelming in June 1918. Not only were the White armies advancing, but the minority party in the revolutionary government, the Left Social Revolutionaries, assassinated the German ambassador in an effort to provoke renewed war with Germany and seize power themselves. Serge described how the pressure:

poses an unmistakable threat to the survival of the republic. The proletarian dictatorship is forced to throw off its democratic paraphernalia forthwith. Famine and local anarchy compel a rigorous concentration of powers in the hands of the appropriate commissariats ... Conspiracy compels the introduction of a powerful apparatus of internal defence. Assassinations, peasant risings and mortal danger compel the use of terror ... Soviet institutions ... now function in a vacuum.

This transformation was not the result of some diabolical scheme of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as conservatives, liberals, social democrats and many anarchists have claimed since. It was the product of the strangulation of the revolution from outside.

The Stranded Party

The Bolshevik party itself underwent changes as it fought to keep the revolution alive. It began in 1918 as an overwhelmingly workers’ party, with about 300,000 members – one in ten of those working in modern industrial plants. These were the activists who carried the burden of defending the revolution, forming the core of a Red Army involved in continual warfare, risking their lives to thwart counter-revolutionary conspiracies in the cities and desperately trying to keep industry running despite the absence of raw materials.

Most retained the socialist commitment that had held them firm during the years of repression and world war. But external pressures began to change the way many saw this commitment. People began to redefine the ‘dictatorship’ required to secure the situation as no longer one exercised through democratic workers’ organisation, but a dictatorship of the party.

At the same time, they were forced to rely on the assistance of large numbers of people from the middle and lower echelons of the old Tsarist administration, people with hardly an ounce of socialist spirit in them. Lenin was increasingly aware of the problems facing the revolutionary republic. In 1920 he argued: ‘Ours is ... a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.’ He described the state apparatus as ‘borrowed from Tsarism and hardly touched by the Soviet world ... a bourgeois and Tsarist mechanism.’

These pressures gave rise to a layer within the Bolshevik party and the state who were increasingly removed from the revolutionary democratic traditions of 1917. The person who came to express its attitudes was Josef Stalin, a second-level party figure in 1917 but increasingly taking the place of the dying Lenin by 1922. In his Testament, written in 1923 shortly before his death, Lenin called upon the party to remove Stalin from the post of general secretary. Such was the level of decay, even at the top of the party, that his advice was ignored.

Over the next decade, party members opposed to the Stalin group were driven out and a series of trials from 1936 onwards led to the execution of virtually the entire revolutionary generation of 1917. Leon Trotsky, universally recognised alongside Lenin in 1917–21 as the most important of the revolutionary leaders, was thrown out of the USSR and chased from country to country until his murder by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940.

None of this was an inevitable product of revolution. Rather, it was the product of the attacks launched against the revolution by the parasitic classes of the world. The Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, herself murdered in 1919 for trying to spread the revolution, recognised this as early as 1918. She wrote:

Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy ... A model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle [Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, available from]

A human being who is strangled ends as a smelly, discoloured corpse crawling with worms, but no-one blames the living person for that. The living revolution of 1917 was strangled, but no-one should blame that revolution for the abomination it became.

State Capitalism

The murder of the revolutionary generation of 1917 was a symptom of a fundamental change in Russian society. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union was run by an increasingly bureaucratised layer that still gave some indirect, though increasingly faint, expression to the concerns of workers and peasants. But in 1928 the problems of trying to maintain an isolated state in a backward country in a capitalist world system came to head.

The bureaucrats around Stalin abandoned any real hope of overcoming the pressure of the world system by spreading revolution. They believed that left them only one choice – to build up industry in competition with the rest of the world by attacking the conditions of the peasants and workers. They sent the army into the countryside to seize first the crops from the peasantry, and then the land calling this process ‘collectivisation’. The regime did away with the last elements of trade union independence and slashed real wages by about 50 per cent. Oppression of national minorities, who made up half the total population, returned. Those who resisted the loss of their land or their rights were sent to slave labour camps, where the number of inmates grew from 30,000 in 1928 to 662,000 in 1930 and five million by the late 1930s. Intellectuals were bribed or terrorised into submission, with the regime afraid lest a poem or play should express the suffering of the masses.

There is a connection between the totalitarian structure that came to dominate the Soviet Union under Stalin and the policy of building industry in competition with the existing powers. But it is a connection that cannot be grasped by those who see Stalinism as a logical continuation of Bolshevism.

The industrialisation of economically backward countries has always been carried through at the expense of the mass of people, often by barbaric means. This was true of the industrial revolution in Britain, which depended on driving the peasantry from the land, putting children to work in factories, setting up workhouses to force people to take jobs, enslaving millions of Africans, and looting and impoverishing India. This process took 300 years. Stalin used similar means compressed into two decades – collectivisation of the peasantry, penal labour, slave camps, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after 1945. The barbarity was correspondingly concentrated.

Stalin called this system socialism and the party of the ruling class in Russia Communist. Most of the left in the rest of the world took him at his word, allowing right wingers to claim the Soviet Union proved socialism inevitably led to totalitarianism and hardship. Both sides missed the fundamental similarities between the Stalinist system and western capitalism – the subordination of the mass of people to a system of exploitation that allowed one set of rulers to compete economically and militarily with another.

Other Revolutions of the 20th Century

The Russian Revolution was not the only upheaval of the 20th century. There were others in Mexico, Turkey, Germany, Austria, China, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Portugal and Nicaragua. But none of these involved workers organising democratically to establish their own power. Some of the revolutions involved mass movements that were held in check, overthrowing old monarchies to be replaced by the limited democracy permitted under capitalism. This is what happened in Germany and Austria at the end of the First World War, and in Italy at the end of the Second. In other cases, such as Mexico in 1920, a new bourgeois layer replaced an old one, using the slogans of revolution while conniving in the murder of revolutionary leaders.

There were other successful revolutionary movements that called themselves socialist or even Communist and Marxist. Yet examined closely, these were all a far cry from the revolutionary working-class democracy of Russia in 1917. They involved guerrilla armies of various sizes, run in an authoritarian manner, with many rank-and-file fighters from peasant backgrounds and leaders from the middle class. This was the character of the Chinese People’s Army that swept into Beijing in 1949, of the Vietminh who defeated the French in Vietnam in 1954 and of its successor, the NLF, which drove the US out of South Vietnam in the war that ended in 1975. These forces embodied popular resistance to landlords and foreign rule. But they were never under democratic popular control.

The same was true of the regime of Abdul Nasser that took over in Egypt in the revolution of 1952, defying imperialism, redistributing land and nationalising 85 per cent of industry. It was true of the rebel army that took power in Cuba on New Year’s Day in 1959. At no point were the mass of workers and peasants in Cuba involved in free debate about the direction the revolution should take or the aims of economic planning, and they enjoy no such involvement today. Cuban workers and labourers on the land can applaud measures they like and grumble quietly about those they do not. But they are not allowed to organise, to circulate publications with views different to those at the top, or to vote on proposals for the development of society.

Regimes such as Castro’s in Cuba may have been better, at some point, than the society before – and Cuba deserves defending against strangulation by the US today. But this is not what revolution in the 21st century should be about. Indeed, all the regimes mentioned show signs of growing ever more like the western version of capitalism.


1. All quoted in W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory (New York 1989).

Last updated on 5 October 2016